From a recent Black Perspectives interview that Ajamu Amiri Dillahunt did with Bree Newsome Bass, an artist who drew national attention in 2015 when she climbed the flagpole in front of the South Carolina Capitol building and lowered the confederate battle flag.
I often get the question, “how do I become an activist.” The simple answer is that an activist is one who acts, who takes action in furtherance of a cause. I was an activist before I consciously identified as such. I never had ambitions of being an activist, only an ambition to change things for the better. The labels only serve to describe what it is I do. It’s become very hip to identify as an activist–not necessarily a bad thing–but it’s important to not let this word become devoid of meaning. Many of the struggles and movements of the past have been Disney-fied and watered down to focus merely on the tactic of nonviolent protest and to portray the tactic as being the goal itself. That is, the reason for the protests, racial and economic oppression, are erased and glossed over to make it seem like the extent of being an activist is participating in a nonviolent protest. The white power structure continues to find new ways to dilute or subvert the central issue of racism in America. One of its most recent tactics is introducing the notion of “bothsideism” to activism. Every cause qualifies as “activism” and everyone is an “activist” with little time or examination given to what cause folks are actually being an activist for.
We frequently see messaging that nonviolence is about peacefully making space for all ideas to receive equal airtime; an activist for human rights and an activist for white supremacy are both “activists”. This is a deliberate effort to water down the nature and historical reality of Black protest. Nonviolence is not about giving equal airtime to human rights and genocide. It’s a specific position that stands actively–not passively–opposed to racism, militarism and economic exploitation. In response to Black Lives Matter protests penetrating the national consciousness, it became popular to label everyone an “activist”. I say all this to say that it’s important we not allow words to lose meaning which is only possible if we remain perfectly clear what we are advocating for and against. That said, anti-racism activism doesn’t look one way, either.
People seem to think that unless you are doing something as dramatic as scaling a flagpole in South Carolina or staring down police rifles and teargas, you aren’t engaging in activism. In many cases, I’m looking for everyone to do what they’re already doing but applying a new consciousness to their actions. We need teachers in the classrooms who understand the need to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. We need physicians who are aware of how racism operates in medicine who can commit to dismantling racism in healthcare systems. We need legal minds who can help us mount challenges in the court systems and craft new revolutionary policy ideas. We need conscious social workers and city planners and yes, we need folks who are ready to protest, take to the streets and shut it down when needed. We need all hands on deck and we need everyone to recognize what is at stake in this moment. If you’re trying to find your entry point to the modern movement, I encourage you to identify what issue you’re most passionate about and what talents and skills you want to bring to the fold. Before starting, see if there’s anyone already doing similar work and consider joining up with them so as not to replicate work that’s already being done. If no one is doing what you feel needs to be done, then take it on yourself. Having a community of fellow activists around you is also key to having a network of support and for building collectively.